The Carson City lawyer elected to head the state bar this fiscal year says he sees the organization as a consumer protection agency for the public.
Frank Flaherty, a partner in the Dyer Lawrence firm, took over as president of the bar at the beginning of the fiscal year, July 1, a somewhat unusual choice by the Board of Governors since most bar presidents come from very large firms in Reno or Las Vegas.
The bar is a publicly chartered corporation, created in 1928, which all lawyers in Nevada must be members of in order to practice law in the state.
It provides a variety of services, including requiring ongoing training and education for lawyers as well as investigating the complaints filed against the roughly 8,000 active and 2,000 inactive lawyers in Nevada. The bar has the power to sanction, suspend and even demand disbarment or retirement of lawyers who violate the rules or state statutes.
He said it also has the power to prosecute non-lawyers who cross the line and practice law in Nevada.
"We're a kind of consumer protection agency," said Flaherty.
He said he understands that some see the state bar as an organization that protects bad lawyers, but he strongly disagrees.
"It's tough," he said. "We don't enjoy a great reputation.
"I believe 99.9 percent of my colleagues work hard, but when one of our colleagues does something, that sets us back."
He said the bar goes after and prosecutes those bad apples.
"Lawyers do not have any interest in protecting or keeping bad lawyers in practice," Flaherty said. "If they're going to get in trouble, they are going to be sanctioned because ultimately our allegiance is to the public."
When the bar receives a complaint, he said, bar counsel examines it to see whether it has any merit. Frivolous complaints are tossed, but those with any merit are investigated then presented to a panel of volunteer lawyers that he said sits "as a kind of grand jury."
"We take this very seriously," he said.
Many complaints are resolved at that level with agreed-upon sanctions, but some get sent up to the Supreme Court for a final decision. Those include major suspensions and disbarments.
The bar also functions as a support organization for lawyers. Flaherty said that includes the mandatory "continuing legal education" programs they must take each year to keep their licenses.
He said one of his goals is to expand services to the sole practitioners and small firms that don't have resources, including improved access to legal education programs by Internet, video conference and other means. He said many of those lawyers are in rural areas with very little access to the support systems available in the Reno, Las Vegas and Carson City areas.
"We need to make it easier for them to practice law," he said.
To include the rural lawyers, Flaherty said, the bar's Board of Governors meets at least once each year in a rural community. This year, it's Genoa.
In addition, Flaherty said the bar works constantly to improve access to legal services for those who can't afford a lawyer as well as rural residents who may not have access to a lawyer knowledgeable about their particular problem.
They keep track of the pro bono - free legal services - that all lawyers in Nevada provide each year. While not mandatory, pro bono work is strongly encouraged, he said, and those who don't are asked to contribute to legal-assistance programs.
To improve that access, he said, inactive or retired lawyers don't have to pay the $500 annual dues to the bar.
The bar also provides staff to Justices Jim Hardesty and Michael Douglas, who head the court's access to legal services program.
Access, he said, may also benefit from the new Internet, video and other technologies.